A Songwriting Lesson
by Ernest Troost
Dad pulled the car over and parked facing the pond. He stared trance-like, leaning forward on the steering wheel, looking across the water as he smoked. He took a deep drag, and I could hear the soft crackle of his flaring cigarette tip. I stared across the pond too, hoping to see whatever he was seeing.
“Beautiful spot,” he said.
Driving home from town on a Saturday, Dad would sometimes say, “Let’s explore,” and he’d turn down a road we’d never been on before. When I was nine or ten this was the best kind of adventure. The back roads in our rural Connecticut town were narrow, lightly oiled, and might even have sections of gravel or dirt. It was exciting to discover what was around each new curve. They could dwindle into cow paths or pass new houses being built in clearings carved out of the thick woods. Dad said the town was growing fast and the new houses were probably for folks moving up from the city. Sometimes we’d stop and climb through the half-built structures, which smelled of fresh-cut wood. We’d try to guess where the kitchen or bathroom would go, or we’d look out through the empty frame of a picture window, to see what the owner’s view would be.
On these rides we never had a map and there were few road signs. Sometimes Dad would let me pick the direction when we came to a fork in the road. Often the woods overhung the road and I could put my arm out the window and touch big maple leaves. Sometimes there were long stretches of stone walls along the roadside that had once encircled an estate. Once, a road trailed off into a field and Dad followed it, crawling along in first gear, our Volkswagen’s engine revving hard, the smell of hot oil rising from the transmission tunnel. We struggled to see where the old road had once been. We pushed through tall grass, our tires covered with mud, and I imagined we were on a safari.
“Are we lost?” I asked.
“Sometimes you have to just keep going,” he said.
We followed tracks, really just light impressions in the ground, to the far side of the field and squeezed through a narrow opening in a stone wall. We came out on a familiar two-lane highway. It was the road home.
Those drives with my Dad were physical manifestations of his creative thinking. Instead of working something out on canvas with paint or juggling words on a page, he drove his car through all the permutations that were available in the surrounding countryside. It was his way of showing me how intuition and patience worked together to help you discover new places and ideas, and that the process itself could be enjoyable.
When I’m writing a song I start with music that is simple and play it for a while, maybe singing some fragments of words. The chord progression is unremarkable, but then I change a chord or two, and the progression takes a turn. What was commonplace becomes intriguing. The words rub up against this altered progression in a new way, like unfamiliar scenery rushing past a car window. Now the song’s words start to sound right with the music, and I can feel a pull like a compass needle finding north. The words resonate, but they still don’t make sense. I sing it over and over—and this is the hard part, because the song might not make sense for a long time. I patiently change words while I play, following my ear like we once followed the faint tracks in a field. Then one day the song miraculously crystalizes into its finished form, and I hear my Dad say, “Sometimes you just have to keep going.”